The Victoria & Albert Museum has a unique claim to fame – its founding director, Henry Cole, was the first person to send a commercial Christmas card. Cole was an inventor at heart but his day jobs were time-consuming roles in civil service. Between all the work he did for committees and tinkering with his inventions, there just wasn’t much time left for the 19th-century custom of writing really, really long and personalized letters to friends and family.
This wasn’t just a one letter thing either. The social niceties of the time called for a receiver to reply to everyone who sent them a letter and since it would be a faux pas to ignore anyone you know, especially a civil servant like Cole, he was stuck writing pages upon pages of replies.
On December 1843, Cole decided it was time for a more elegant solution: the Christmas card. Or to be more accurate, the first commercial Christmas card.
Cole commissioned artist John Callcot Horsley to make an illustration he could send to all his friends and family. It had to be personalized enough that it wouldn’t seem too indifferent, but also not so personalized that he may as well write letters. Horsley made a picture of the Coles sitting together at a table for Christmas dinner. When it finally arrived at Cole’s home on December 17th, Cole liked it enough that he sent it down to a printing press and had a thousand copies made. This would be overkill for personal use, but Cole didn’t want to keep all his Christmas cards close to his chest: he was going to sell them.
At one shilling a piece, the first commercial Christmas cards were a commercial failure. This was an amount of exorbitant money at the time. For comparison, a coach-maker made 5 shillings a week, far above the earnings of many middle-class workers. Cole’s first commercial Christmas card was doomed from the start.
But this was the first success of the commercial Christmas card. At the very least, they proved that you could mass-produce greetings to fulfill social functions for you. According to Clement A. Miles, author of Christmas Customs and Traditions, Their History and Significance, the tradition of giving Christmas cards became popular by the late 1800s.
Still, Cole isn’t the singular person to thank for the Christmas card because this mundane Christmas item goes back much, much further than that.
The Origins of the Christmas Card
The 19th-century Christmas card was a natural evolution from the then-already-famous Valentine’s cards that featured rose motifs, messages of love, and embossed paper designs. The paper Valentine was a simpler version of the love urns given during Lupercalia back in the days of Rome. By the 16th century, their Valentine’s card as we know it today was gaining traction. German physician Michael Maier adapted this idea to send the first known Christmas “card” in 1611 to King James I. “Card” is an understatement since it was the size of a manuscript.
Wind the hands of time back a little more and you have strenae, a Roman greeting twig that would be given to wish good luck to the receiver for the coming year.
Point is, the holiday greeting thing, whether it’s a card, twig, or urn, is a very old idea that keeps changing alongside people’s lifestyles. Despite this longstanding tradition, and Cole’s friends and acquaintances adopting the idea for their own use, it would take decades for the Christmas card to cross the pond and gain traction in the U.S.
Louis Prang, who owned a tiny print shop in Boston during the late 19th century, would make the first known American Christmas cards. His cards were a lot simpler compared to Cole’s, featuring only flowers and a simple “Merry Christmas” rather than an entire family sending their well wishes.
But with minimal ink costs and a widely applicable message, Prang’s Christmas card finally caught on. Soon, card makers were holding design competitions and people were collecting the cards as part of the 19th-century ephemera craze.
There’s just one problem: they were a little too small.
Hallmark and the Hallmarks of the Christmas Card Industry
Enter the Hall Brothers. Joyce, Rollie, and William weren’t new to the card-making game. They previously ran a greeting card company, the Norfolk Post Card Company, in Norfolk, Virginia but business was slow and their products had tiny profit margins. They were basically waiting to go bankrupt.
On January 1910, Joyce Hall packed two shoeboxes with postcards and headed for Kansas City where he sold his cards to anyone who would give them the time of day. His brothers later followed him to help with his growing business, marking the start of Hall Brothers Inc.
Business was great again. Until it wasn’t.
By 1912, the postcard craze was starting to die down. No one wanted to spend so much money on postcards anymore, forcing the Halls to pivot into the Christmas card market. While there were plenty of Christmas card publishers by then, they were making inferior cards that didn’t have enough space for senders to write their heartfelt messages and poetry on.
The Halls changed this with the now standard 4 x 6-inch folded Christmas card. With just a small yet effective change, they were able to take over the Christmas card industry. This allowed them to diversify out of cards and into gift wrap.
Today, Hallmark has 27,000 employees across the U.S. and, according to Forbes, made $3.5 billion in revenue this year alone. The company also owns other household names like Crayola Silly Putty, and Crown Media, the company that makes the Hallmark Christmas movies.
And it’s all thanks to the Christmas card.
Why the Christmas Card Isn’t Going Anywhere Anytime Soon
The Hall Brothers were nearly put out of business by the waning popularity of postcards. While it’s clearly for the best that they’ve diversified out of making Christmas cards, it’s unlikely that they’ll stop printing their famous cards anytime soon.
Digitalization and social media are slowly changing the landscape of the greeting card industry and while the greeting card market is expected to shrink to $20.9 billion in 2026, as opposed to $23 billion in 2020, it’s not likely to disappear overnight as Gen z and Millennials embrace the quaintness of the Christmas card tradition.
“People may be surprised,” Winnie Park, CEO of Paper Source, told Marie Claire, “but our number-one customers for paper goods are actually Millennials. They are our fastest growing segment.”
If anything, it’s the old-fashionedness of Christmas cards that’s keeping them in business. At a time when social media facilitates communication, but not necessarily warmth and understanding, and feels more and more like a curated highlight real of our lives, the Christmas card is a physical reminder of real life sentiments. What people really feel about you made incarnate in a way that a <3 reaction or a “Merry Christmas!” Tweet can’t quite match.
As time goes on though, it may not be big card companies who will continue to find increasing success in the greeting card market. Art commissions and small, one-person businesses that sell customized art products are popping up everywhere. You don’t need stats for this. Just pull aside a Gen Z-er and have a look at what their algorithm suggests to them.
Companies like Paper Culture, a manufacturer that makes sustainable paper products, let you order personalized Christmas cards on their online store. The cards have minimalist designs suited to modern tastes.
Even with AI art on the horizon, young Gen Z artists are continuing to make money by creating custom art and crafts products that other Gen Z-ers can gift to their friends. It’s not a lot of money, but the practice of giving Christmas cards and the cadre of artists and publishers making them are going to hold on for a little while longer.